various artists,
The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert
(Black Hen, 2010)

Recorded in Vancouver, British Columbia, over the weekend of March 12-13, 2010, The Mississippi Sheiks Tribute Concert is a companion to Black Hen's CD Things About Comin' My Way, which I reviewed here on 24 April 2010. Tributes tend to be an iffy business, often pointless and too close to the original to be of much interest. Steve Dawson, roots musician, head of the Canadian folk label Black Hen and the brains behind the project, is too bright and creative a soul to fall into that trap.

Like its CD companion, this DVD features respectful but modern takes on the songs written by or associated with the legendary African-American stringband Mississippi Sheiks, who recorded around 100 sides between 1930 and 1935. What makes it distinctive is that most of the songs don't appear on the CD. When they do -- with the sole exception of "I've Got Blood in My Eyes for You," performed on both by Seattle performer Robin Holcomb in a desolate, late-night, piano-bar jazz arrangement -- the songs are not covered by the same artists. Compare, for example, Kelly Joe Phelps's glum, introspective "Livin' in a Strain" on the compact disc to Alvin Youngblood Hart's fierce, charging arrangement (the highlight here, in my judgment) on the DVD; you wouldn't know it was the same song if you didn't recognize the lyrics which, by the way, amount to something like blues poetry.

The Sheiks are most remembered for the much-recorded "Sitting on Top of the World" (which appears as an everybody-on-stage closer), which has been revived in almost every imaginable roots, pop or jazz arrangement, but they recorded an astonishing amount of excellent material. They were more songsters than bluesmen, though their blues sides stand up to any country blues records of the fertile 1930s musical culture of the rural South. Tribute Concert focuses, in fact, largely on the Sheiks' blues side, with strong treatments here of "Kind Treatment" (John Hammond), "Church Bell Blues" (Bob Brozman) and the hilariously risque "It's Backfirin' Now" (Van Dyke Parks; the North Mississippi Allstars open the CD with it). A couple of non-blues folk songs appear: "Sweet Maggie" (by the Sojourners, an African-American gospel trio; it's a variant of "Corrine, Corrina") and "Poor Boy" (Geoff Muldaur). "Who's Been Here," from the repertoire of Bo Carter (a brother of Sheik Lonnie Chatmon) and sung by Dave Alvin & Christy McWilson, is something of a bluesy reworking of the antique bawdy ballad "Four Nights Drunk."

The performers, a mix of Americans and Canadians, are clearly having a very good time of it. It's also obvious that they love the Sheiks' songs, which admittedly is not the hardest thing in the world to do. A fabulous band, sometimes electric, sometimes acoustic, backs the singers. A whole lot of joy follows. If you weren't there, the DVD will put you there.

music review by
Jerome Clark

12 March 2011

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